My youngest niece and I could not be more different. For one, I am 42 and Arianna is 17. But we have a few things in common.
We're both the youngest of three, and we both have a small cluster of ailments that swim together in the Kalem gene pool: eczema, allergies. We both grew up in regions overwrought with conformism—she in Boca Raton, Fla., me on Long Island, N.Y. But in terms of our adolescent experience—which she is very much in the midst of, and I, when I am honest with myself, feel like I never completely left behind—we may as well have come of age on different planets.
Arianna and her friends, like me and mine, were, once upon a time, fascinated with IRL popularity. That changed for them when they became the subject of social scrutiny, but not in the way I'd dreamed of—with party invitations, cute surfer-stoners idling on the curb outside of my house, and a Veronica Sawyer-like grip on both the popular kids and the misfits. Instead, where I found pen pals in the back pages of Star Hits and called 1-900 party lines, Arianna and her friends are famous on the Internet.
As of this writing, my 17-year-old niece has more than 45,000 followers on Instagram. At one point she had closer to 50,000. Her number of followers jumped significantly when she started dating her now ex-boyfriend, Dylan, who at the time had around 25,000. They earned an Instagram celeb nickname—#darianna, a la Brangelina. Every photo she posts gets, by my unscientific calculations, an average of 2,000 to 4,000 likes. The ones of just her or her and a few of her girlfriends dressed up (or down, as the case is on a beach day)—as opposed to the ones where she's with a mixed-gender group, goofing off in science lab or at McDonalds, or photos of my sister on Mother's Day, about to dig her gift out of a Tory Burch shopping bag—get closer to 5,000. Her photos always get 10 or more comments, and usually closer to 50. She deletes the ones that are negative, toward her or toward other people.
For some reason, a lot of her followers—her fans—are from Brazil, and other countries, too. "They comment in other languages all the time," she tells me. "I wonder if they think I can understand them? Or what the point is? But some of it isn't even in the English alphabet."
Chances are they're saying something about how perfect she is, how gorgeous her hair or eyes are, or asking where she got that top. That's what a lot of the comments say. One favorite around my house is simply "sex with you." Not "I want to have..." but simply the idea, expressed: "sex with you." It's not real-world desire; my niece isn't necessarily real to them. The images she posts, the comments she allows to remain, it all paints a picture of a life to be admired and commented on. In short, it's what a whole lot of us do with social media. She's just really, really good at it.
My niece and her friends have blogs devoted to them, written by younger girls in their area code and beyond. Their social media accounts are hacked and impersonated. They are recognized at concerts and at malls. But when you talk to them—as I do, usually when I visit in the fall, descending upon their air-conditioned environs with my tattoos and fun belly and Korean-American husband like a plague of "other" blowing in from the west—they are lovely and polite, spending no more time hunched over their girly-pink iPhone cases than, say, my aforementioned husband.
They toss their shiny hair and smile their orthodontic smiles, laugh at my jokes about viral videos, shrug off questions of what they want to be when they grow up, and otherwise act like, well, decently-adjusted, middle-class teenage girls.
Arianna, along with her friends, became "obsessed" with Tumblr in the eighth grade. They made videos of themselves dancing, and Savannah—Arianna's best friend, then and now—edited them with iMovie and posted them to Tumblr. And then Savannah got a boyfriend, Jared. And they made a video.
"The age group that Tumblr is for," according to Ari, "are people who are trying to find themselves. It's all about you and your interests. And one of the things people are interested in at that age, and are looking for, is a boyfriend. They're so in love with the idea of love. And they really do seem like seem like they're in love in the videos, and I think a lot of people just fell in love with the fact that they were in love."
That first video might melt your brain a little if you are, say, over the age of 30: an eighth-grade couple, looking older than they are, shooting pool and making out, singing along to Maroon 5's "Heart's in Stereo" in the back of a parent's car, getting photo-bombed by Savannah's little brother, and professing their love for each other. He's sometimes shirtless and she is often wearing teeny-tiny shorts. The tops of their heads are usually out of frame. It's awkward and discomfiting and painfully sweet—in short, somehow a perfect encapsulation of tween romance.
And so, like any photos or videos of couples kissing, it was popular.
"Every day," Arianna recalls, "it just kept getting more and more notes, and we were all so excited because to have one of your pictures or videos get a lot of notes is pretty much a huge compliment. And so from that she got a lot of followers. So she posted another video of her relationship and that, too, got hundreds of thousands of notes. And before we knew it, she had hundreds of thousands of followers."
The last time Arianna remembers checking it, the first video had at least three million views on YouTube. That original posting isn't available anymore, and it's impossible to figure out whether or not channels like this one are Savannah's or a fan site.
"Surprisingly, a lot of her stuff gets reported," says Arianna. "People say that it's a fake account, just so they can pretend to be the real account. Most of her accounts get deleted."
But Savannah's Tumblr is insanely popular. You can't see her follower count, but Arianna says Savannah "got bigger than anyone ever has ever been on Tumblr without being a celebrity first." Savannah has a fraction of the followers that, say, Kylie Jenner has on Instagram and Twitter. But Kylie Jenner was famous before she got all of those followers.
And Kylie Jenner follows Savannah.
"Wherever we go with Savannah, she gets recognized," says Arianna. "At the Drake vs. Lil Wayne concert, wherever we go, you just see the expression on people's faces. Not just young people, either. There were 30-year-olds saying, 'Oh, that's that girl from Instagram,' or, 'It's that Tumblr girl.'" From being associated with Savannah, Arianna ended up with thousands of followers of her own on Tumblr. "Then, Instagram came out, and for some reason, that just made everything explode."
Savannah ended up with more than 500,000 followers; by association, Arianna got about 20,000 of her own. "A couple months later is when 'Trill Fam' began, and for some reason, the followers loved that." Trill Fam was the combination of Arianna and Savannah's friends and Jared's friends. They named themselves after Trill Entertainment, a record label out of Baton Rouge, and the girls became BBOD ("bad bitches or die"), the boys HHOD ("Hypnotiq hooligans or die"). Arianna's Instagram handle, "aritunechii," references Lil Wayne's nickname.
"Because we were in 8th grade," Arianna says, "and we thought we were funny. We thought we were bad."
When I was in middle school, my girlfriends and I had a club called ILBC (the "I love boys club"); our theme songs were Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and Quiet Riot's cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize." Nobody cared but us.
The group's popularity grew. "All of us began frequently making it to the popular page of Instagram, where more people would discover us," Arianna explains. And then, early last year, when Arianna was 16, she started dating Dylan, a boy who had gone to their high school but had graduated the year before. Here's a video of him asking her to be his girlfriend, essentially, as filmed by Savannah and with a special guest appearance by my sister, Ari's mom.
Dylan and Arianna—#darianna—went out for about a year and a half. That's a little longer than I went out with my one real high school boyfriend, which was a pretty big deal to me at the time, even without the Internet.
I was badly bullied at my high school, so any romantic physical contact I'd had with classmates had been on the down-low. I met my boyfriend, Adam, at my summer job, and he lived a few towns over. He drove a late-50s vintage car, turned me on to the Velvet Underground, and was one of the coolest people I'd ever met while still being totally sweet. I broke up with him shortly before prom, because I felt badly that he liked me more than I him.
As it turns out, that's pretty much how Arianna felt about her breakup with Dylan, in spite of the fact that her relationship had very public stakes. When I asked her whether she thought her relationship would have been different if she only had a handful of social media followers, she said she doesn't think so.
"I started dating him because he was [part of Trill Fam], and so we were hanging out 24-7, that kind of thing. But Instagram as a part of it? Not so much. I just posted pictures. I liked getting likes on them. But I didn't post them to get likes on them."
And when they broke up, she says, "I never even announced to my followers or anything that we broke up. I just changed my bio so it didn't say 'love Dylan Baitz' anymore. I just erased it and he erased his, so they finally figured it out."
Now, months later—though she still gets tweets and Tumblr messages asking why they broke up—if you Google "darianna" you're just as likely to get results on singer-songwriter Darianna Everett as you are Tumblr blogs devoted to my niece and her former boyfriend.
As for me and my high school flame, well, we're friends on Facebook, and I always try to wish him a happy birthday there with a nostalgic music video link. I ended up going to prom with my best girlfriend.
A lot of the women my age who see the large number of Arianna's followers assume that the majority of them are adult men. Arianna disagrees, insisting that most of them are teenage girls.
"I've received hundreds, maybe even thousands of messages from girls who say that I'm their role model or that I inspire them in some way," she says. "Most of my fans are in middle school, so I try to act as appropriate as I can so I don't set a bad example."
She doesn't talk shit online, either. "I think that I learned to be a nice person because I didn't want to be a mean person in front of fans or for friends to see." (For the record, she is sometimes mean to her sisters, and they to her, so she's not, you know, abnormal or anything.) She tries not to curse in her tweets, and doesn't post anything illegal—so no drinking photos or pictures of her friends getting trashed.
Of course, other people do post those pictures, and they tag her. So there are plenty of photos of her out there, surrounded by red Solo cups. There is only so much image curation she can do.
"There was one point I really started hating it," she says. "And that's when I realized that all of the pictures I've posted of me and that other people have posted can be easily found." But she keeps things positive in her own comments with the careful eye of someone who is building both a self-image and a brand.
That image curation is a big piece of what my generation of teenagers was missing: if you couldn't perform cool or pretty with enough skill, you were outed as neither. There was no second life online. You played the hand you were dealt, which means that, no matter how rich my adolescent fantasy life, I was not glamorous or even witty to my high school peers. I was one of a small brand of freaks, and not the one the football players secretly wanted to date, or the one with the elaborate makeup who looked like she stepped out of a John Hughes movie.
Perhaps I would have self-created on social media, if I'd had it. Or perhaps I'd have been just as sensitive and eager to please on the Internet, and it would have been my downfall, as it was in the halls of my high school.
"We've been taught at so many assemblies not to bully that I think there aren't bullies anymore," says Arianna. "Not like there used to be—stealing your lunch money and picking on you in dodgeball."
But there's cyber-bullying, which feels more dangerous to me. With cyber-bullying, there's only so many times you can tell yourself that it will get better, that somewhere out there are people who will understand you. Because there is much harder evidence on your iPhone that somewhere out there are people who want to hurt you.
Arianna, for her part, cannot recall ever being bullied. When other kids have gotten picked on in her comments, she has deleted the bullies. And the only strangers' messages she responds to are those from people who talk about getting bullied, "or who have something in their life really getting them down." She has messaged these people privately, and made connections with some that way, connections that have lasted a year or two. Most of what she has seen has taken place in middle school—among her own tween classmates (which was wa-a-ay back in the Myspace days) or, later, with her primarily younger demographic.
But, she says, "people definitely still have Twitter beef, the sub-tweeting and mean tweets." It's easy to make fake accounts, too, and that's a way of bullying: impersonating someone else, not to live in their skin (as the fake accounts devoted to Arianna and Savannah do), but rather to lampoon them, put words in their mouths.
This kind of impersonation, of course, is not new. It's just easier.
The author in high school.
When I was in eleventh grade, I started getting phone calls from a boy. He said he was someone my friends and I had met at a dance club; I made up a fake boyfriend to keep him at arm's length, but kept taking his calls. I guess I was flattered. At some point he stopped calling, or maybe I stopped answering.
But shortly after that, one of our group, Kristina, confided in me that the boy who'd been calling me had actually been the older boyfriend of another friend. And that most of the people we hung out with had, at one point or another, been in the room with him, laughing at my fake boyfriend, at my gullibility, my desperation.
Sometime not too long after I headed off to college, I learned how to curate my image. I got myself what I thought was a pretty cool nickname, grew out my perm, and traded the long black coat and cheap pointy buckle boots for Chinese slippers and vintage dresses sloppily cut into minis. I took down fat sacs of weed and went dancing at smoky Southern rock clubs. And nearly no one who had gone to my high school followed, so my secret was safe.
I still curate my image; we all do. But as adults, we are a bit more careful with our brands than we would have been as teenagers. And while Arianna has been good at painting one kind of picture, she is now worried about how that picture will play in her immediate future.
"I was scared that colleges would Google my name," she says, "and wonder, 'what did this girl do?,' and if it would affect admissions. But my teachers convinced me that, with this generation, people don't care that much. We all have stuff on the internet. And they don't have time to Google everyone that applies to college. But I want to be able to, when I go off to college, just be able to contact people I know from my hometown, see all their comments on my photos, not all these little girls and Brazilians."
She contemplates just deleting her accounts after graduation next spring, starting fresh, just like me. Maybe starting an account so she can just keep in touch with the people she actually knows. But it's more complicated than that for her. Unless all of her friends jump ship, too, the fans will come calling, find her through an errant tag, and the whole thing starts over again. Unlike me, she doesn't have the luxury of time—and the technological lag time between centuries—to ditch her followers.
But she has gone back to Tumblr more often lately, to look at photography, and to Twitter to read funny posts. She posts to Instagram less and less frequently. As a user, she is starting to look out at the world, rather than inviting it to look at her.
Part of Arianna's brand-building has been not posting photos wherein she looks bad. And as hopefully as I showed her the "Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces" Tumblr—praying she'd get the hint that life is not all about what's on the outside—I know that, when I was a teenager, I desperately wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be perceived as funny, too, and smart. But I really, really wanted to be pretty.
And even now, though I readily make fun of myself on social media and spend most of my online space on my writing and causes I support, I may also be the fastest-untagger-of-unflattering-photos in the west.
One of the first things that struck me about Arianna's social media celebrity—on Instagram, in particular—is how many comments declare her perfection. I assumed it would give a person a big head, or put pressure on them to perform; Arianna denies both. "I definitely think that other things affect me more, like coming across a picture of Tumblr of a bunch of pretty girls. Or seeing a really perfect body on Tumblr, a really skinny girl. That makes me more pressured than them calling me perfect."
So, like so many women, Ari falls into trap of thinking she's not good enough, with most positive compliments not really sinking in. She understands that it's all relative, and in our conversation tried to imagine posting an ugly photo one day. "I hope they wouldn't call me ugly. I hope that they would be like, eh, she's still pretty. Would I ever? Yeah, I don't care that much."
That perceived perfection is up in the air, on servers, in our phones and tablets, but not in our physical space. The elementary school fangirls and grammatically challenged fanboys are, for the most part, no realer to my niece than she is to them. Sometimes I wonder: if I had had social media, constructed an identity online, gotten outfit critiques from glamorous strangers and mixtapes from boys in the U.K., would I have ever bothered to connect with real people at university?
"I've written many essays about this," says my niece, "always backed up by studies about how it makes us antisocial, and we can't communicate the same way. I was taught to think that. And now I think, who would have thought you could get famous by posting pictures on Instagram? It's a different way of communicating. The internet as a whole may be taking a toll on the way we communicate face-to-face. But I think it is also opening up a variety of ways we can communicate."
But, I protested, her becoming famous is one-way. She's posting images, beaming one-way, and people are commenting and saying she's so cool, she's so perfect. If I walked up to her in the mall and complimented her, she would have to respond to me. But if I write that on her photo, she doesn't have to do anything.
"You're right," Arianna says. "But also, if someone from another country commented and I wanted to write back, I could. And that would be a person that I would have never come across if it wasn't for social media. If I decided to make a business and I wanted to advertise my business, it's a huge advertisement opportunity. Or if I wanted everyone to sign a petition for world hunger, I could do that."
Both of those things are kinds of selling, and selling is, no doubt, what so many of us are doing online. Social media teaches my niece about the world; she teaches the world about Boca. And soon she'll head out, and leave as much of it behind as she's willing or able to. Maybe she'll delete all of her accounts; maybe just one or two. Maybe she'll even get a nickname.
Stefanie Kalem is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Bay Area arts-and-culture quarterly Kitchen Sink. She lives in Oakland, California, and is working on a trilogy of sexy, supernatural, rock 'n' roll novels. Follow her on Twitter @fanny_k.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.